As the Covid crisis continues, support your local shops or you may lose them – Christine Jardine MP

Most years I like to savour Christmas shopping.

Many shops and businesses have been forced to close during the Covid lockdown, either because of the restrictions or a lack of trade (Picture: John Devlin)
Many shops and businesses have been forced to close during the Covid lockdown, either because of the restrictions or a lack of trade (Picture: John Devlin)

Enjoy a slightly boozy lunch with a friend, before the shared pleasure of browsing through over-decorated shops, serenaded by Mariah Carey, while we discuss whether that particular present really is sensible. But not this year.

As with practically everything else in 2020, circumstances have dictated a different approach for all of us.

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This week we saw the cost of that clearly in our retail sector. The Arcadia group was already vulnerable before Covid-19. Likewise Debenhams.

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Challenges for high street retailers in an age of Covid

Queen of Shops

But that is no consolation to the 25,000 people who spent this weekend worrying about whether their jobs can be saved from the rubble of what were once some of the proudest names on our high streets.

They are also not the only ones who face the prospect that this year Christmas may not deliver the volume of trade they need to enjoy a profitable, or even survivable, year.

The problems confronting our traditional retail outlets, while accentuated by the current crisis were, of course, visible long before we had heard of coronavirus.

Queen of Shops Mary Portas was brought in by David Cameron almost ten years ago to help rescue our high streets and revive our town centres.

And seven years ago, Small Business Saturday was launched in the USA as a one-off event to recognise and support the small businesses which help our communities to thrive.

The fact that it has now become an annual event on both sides of the Atlantic is an acknowledgement of the challenging environment in which they now operate.

Chancellor eyes Star Wars toys

As an MP, the health of my own communities is, of course, always to the forefront of my mind even in good times.

But as my party’s treasury spokesperson, this year I face the extra challenge of looking for concrete ways to suggest to help the sector through this period.

The most recent forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) suggests the economy will have shrunk by a frightening 11.3 per cent. At the end of September, GDP was already down 9.7 per cent.

In those circumstances, you might not think individual spend will matter, but it does mount up.

That’s why this week the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was pictured gazing lovingly at Star Wars toys – for the kids, he said – in Hamley’s. Regent Street might not be local to you and I, but it is the principle. And we need more, much more.

As a politician one of the things you should try to do is get to the heart of what people actually need and find practical, workable solutions that could make a difference to people’s lives.

Worries that you are not an economist soon fade with the realisation that behind all the numbers and equations are people who feel the ramifications of the sums you do.

Help small firms compete with online giants

So with the festive season upon us, I wrote to the Chancellor urging him to cover postage fees for small businesses at Christmas to help level the playing field with giants like Amazon.

This week business minister Paul Scully MP agreed to meet me to talk about it, even though time is running out to have an impact before Christmas.

Freeing small shops of delivery costs for online purchases would go some way to help combat decreased footfall over months of lockdowns and restrictions.

Together with the suspension of business rates, it could help support them in much the same way as the “Eat out to Help Out” scheme pumped more than £800 million of Exchequer cash into hospitality.

It would also give them something with which to fight back against the online giants who have soaked up so much custom as we all sought ways of shopping during enforced home time.

The Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the idea as providing their members with the boost they need to help level out the playing field.

Right now we need to innovate our way out of this crisis by finding ways to help the self-employed and entrepreneurs who are the lifeblood of our communities.

We will rely on them to help the economy grow and ease us from this crisis.

Appreciate what's on your doorstep

But first, we must pull out all the stops in doing our bit to ensure that they survive and are strong enough to succeed post-Covid.

Because a high street is not just a thoroughfare. It’s where people come together and support their communities whether they are making a conscious decision or not.

They pop down to their favourite bakery or coffee shop in Corstorphine to meet the friend they have been getting together with since school.

Or they nip to South Queensferry to see if Joyce has anything that would be perfect for that big evening out next week, before lunch with a view of the bridges or a major shop at the Gyle.

We might not have thought about it before as we nip between the newsagent and the bakers. But we would notice if there was no longer anywhere to nip to.

As with so many things in the past few months, perhaps this Small Business Saturday we will appreciate what we have on our doorstep.

Why not find time to get some of those last-minute items from one of our many shops?

Wear your mask and they will welcome you, from a safe distance, with that unique, knowing and personal touch that can make shopping special.

I think you’ll enjoy it. After all, local shops are for life, not just for Christmas.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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